FILM REVIEW: East is East (1999)

East is East (UK, 1999)
Directed by Damien O'Donnell

Starring Om Puri, Linda Bassett, Ian Aspinall, Jimi Mistry

There's a long-running tradition in British cinema of finding humour, particularly black humour, in the grimmest and most oppressive circumstances. This tradition arguably reached its peak during the British New Wave of the 1950s and 1960s, whose legacy remains felt in the works of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and to a lesser extent Andrea Arnold. But even though the days of Kes and A Taste of Honey may be long gone, there have been a trickle of films which have kept this tradition going while putting their own stamp on matters. And while not up there with the best work of Loach and Leigh, East is East does deserve commendation.Based on the autobiographical novel and stage play by Ayub Khan-Din, East is East examines the culture clash of Pakistani George Khan (Om Puri) as he struggles to raise his large family in early-1970s Salford. The strife on the streets, epitomised by posters of Enoch Powell, is nothing compared to the hardship Khan's children and wife endure under his iron rule. While Khan is committed to upholding Pakistani traditions, arranging the lavish weddings of his sons and daughters, his offspring are more interested in living life the British way, filled with nightclubs, snogging and questionable art projects.The look of East is East harks back to the kitchen-sink dramas which were spawned from the British New Wave. There are strong hints in Jimi Mistry's character of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: Mistry fills in for Albert Finney as a vessel of burgeoning rage and frustration, desperate to break out and abandon the cell in which he finds himself. The youngest son, who spends most of the film hiding his face with a parka, is as downtrodden and victimised as the protagonist of Kes, to the point where we expect him to run away towards the end.But on top of these gritty references, East is East is also a close cousin of more upbeat, feel-good dramas like The Full Monty or Brassed Off. The influence of the latter is plain to see in the opening scene, which features a military parade marching through crowded urban streets. Damien O'Donnell would later direct the life-affirming drama Inside I'm Dancing, and is most at home with the lighter, more uplifting sections of the film. But like both Brassed Off and The Full Monty, there is depth to East is East as well as delight. Just as The Full Monty is a film about unemployment that just happens to involve strippers, so East is East is an often powerful drama which just happens to be cheerfully funny.The first big plus point of East is East is its balance, not just in terms of the two races or cultures but in its approach to tackling the stereotypes of each of them. It never falls into the trap of reducing either culture to a caricature, whether by having the Pakistanis as intolerant and impetuous or the English as overly cultured and aloof. It completely punctures racial prejudice, using the extremes of Khan and his bigoted white neighbour to demonstrate how futile and destructive prejudice can be. It depicts intolerance as something which, while directed outwards, is corrosive inwards, damaging the things you care about the most.In a similar fashion, East is East has a very fair attitude towards integration. It could be called the Bible of cinematic multiculturalism, at least of the kind being espoused by 1990s politicians. It acknowledges Britain's history as a melting-pot of different cultures, languages and religions, co-existing often uneasily but with ultimately rich and distinctive results. The Khan family outside of George are keen to integrate, retaining aspects of their existing identity while embracing their new home and all it has to offer. George, on the other hand, is so insistent upon keeping what he deems to be Pakistani identity alive, he doesn't believe anyone else's opinion is remotely valid or important.George justifies his attitude through his traditional role as head of the family. This is the one aspect of Pakistani culture (as presented in the film) which Britain shares: wives and children are expected to defer almost lovingly to the iron will of the husband and father, even when they are convinced he is in the wrong. The role of women is a key issue in East is East, with the recurring theme of arranged marriages and the association of progeny being 'sold off' to satisfy or please another family.British cinema has a long tradition of strong female protagonists, particularly in urban dramas. While much of the British New Wave was criticised for being male-centric, or masculine in tone and outlook, works like A Taste of Honey and to some extent The L-Shaped Room pointed to the strength of women in circumstances which would appear to be inferior and weak. Linda Bassett's long-suffering Mancunian mother is a descendent of the kind of roles that Rita Tushingham used to get: she's the one who most comes into her own in the film, eventually managing to stand up to George while somehow still managing to love him.Looking at the way that East is East was marketed, you could be forgiven for seeing it as a parochial, quaint little comedy designed to illicit cheap laughs from the export market. The French title, Fish and Chips - la comédie qui croustille! ("Fish and chips - the crunchy comedy!"), bears no resemblance to the content of the film. And then there's the American poster, in which the Asian characters are shoved out of sight at the top in favour of a white blonde chewing bubblegum - a decision which says quite a lot about the underlying prejudices of film distributors and marketers.While there are many moments in the film which will make you laugh or chuckle, the predominant feeling is one of tension and bittersweetness. We genuinely enjoy spending time with the characters, but the relationship is weighted down by the threat of the father figure and the restrictive power of tradition and expectation. Like the best work of Terrence Rattigan or Alan Ayckbourn, we find ourselves almost screaming at how the younger characters are hemmed in by their elders, with any deviation deemed to be disobedience or the worst form of vulgarity.The central performances in East is East capture this burgeoning sense of havoc and frustration which is always threatening to erupt. Om Puri is a commanding and terrifying screen presence, packing out every shot like a dark shroud drawing darkness over proceedings. Linda Bassett gives as good as him, refusing to descend into the cliché of the stoic Northern housewife and remaining convincing throughout. Jimi Mistry, who recently appeared in The Arbor, is deeply charismatic, channelling Albert Finney and melding it with the swagger of John Travolta in his prime. And Jordan Routledge does very well in his role as the youngest son, blending the mischievous and the fearful to perfection.There are a couple of problems with East is East which prevent it from attaining greatness. Some of the supporting characters are underdeveloped, something which is particularly true of the two Northern girls trying to woo the Khan sons: while Emma Rydal get some room for manoeuvre as Stella, Ruth Jones' character arc doesn't move much beyond the fact that she's fat. More problematic is the ending: with all that has happened, including the violence, you wouldn't expect Linda Bassett to stay with her husband. Perhaps the film is making a point about integration: if he leaves, it would turn the message of the film on its head and imply that the two sides cannot integrate after all. That's completely understandable, but in terms of the familial relationship in and of itself, it feels contrived.East is East is an interesting addition to both the coming-of-age genre and the tradition of culture-class comedies. Its flaws are more or less forgivable and do not significantly encumber or hamper the comedy. After 12 years its emotional impact as is strong as its political relevance, both of which are unlikely to fade in the further passage of time. Warts and all, it is essential viewing for anyone interested in British cinema.

Verdict: Enjoyably smart and bittersweetly funny


Rodders said...

When I first saw this film I was pretty much expecting light hearted comedy, so I was quite surprised at all the wife-beating and the darker moments that occurred. A very well written review, good job

Daniel Mumby said...

Thank you Rodders :)

reyne martin said...

Thanks you for the review. It sounds like the movie is based on two different cultures. Much promising at my point of view.
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